Some Thoughts on “Rescuing US Biomedical Research From Its Systemic Flaws”

By way of the intertoobz, we come across this open access PNAS article about the problems facing biomedical by Bruce Alberts, Marc W. Kirschner, Shirley Tilghman, and Harold Varmus, big names all. Before I get to the flaws, it’s worth noting that this article does something very important: it puts the lie to the notion that we have a STEM shortage, at least in the biomedical sciences. Admittedly, that’s nothing a gajillion science bloggers, including yours truly, haven’t discussed, but Alberts et alia are Very Serious People, so maybe this reality will get some traction. So the first half of the article, which lays out the problems, is excellent*.

Then we get to the solutions. Before I get to the individual items, the immediate problem that the article skirts around is that there are too many academic PhDs chasing too little funding. A culling is occurring and will continue to occur; the question is what are the criteria that will be used for the cull. I share DrugMonkey‘s concerns that there is an air of elitism surrounding how those decisions will be made. The other ‘contextual’ issue is that there is an assumption that NIH research should still mostly be the purview of academic principal investigators (PIs)–this is an assumption that needs to be challenged.

Onto the specifics (not all of them).

I absolutely agree with their stance on PhD training grants–a point I’ve made before. Institutions should only receive NIH funding for graduate students if they make a compelling argument that they have a good training program. If you want to hire a lab assistant (or a ‘junior’ postdoc), then pay lab assistant/postdoc wages and benefits. Students should have a comprehensive training program that focuses on students**.

And then there’s the staff scientist section. This is where thinking about science solely occurring via the Solitary Heroic PI and Her Band of Plucky Followers goes off the rails. From the article (boldface mine):

We believe that staff scientists can and should play increasingly important roles in the biomedical workforce. Within individual laboratories, they can oversee the day-to-day work of the laboratory, taking on some of the administrative burdens that now tend to fall on the shoulders of the laboratory head; orient and train new members of the laboratory; manage large equipment and common facilities; and perform scientific projects independently or in collaboration with other members of the group. Within institutions, they can serve as leaders and technical experts in core laboratories serving multiple investigators and even multiple institutions.

We recommend increasing the ratio of permanent staff positions to trainee positions, both in individual laboratories and in core facilities that serve multiple laboratories. To succeed, universities will need employment policies that provide these individuals with attractive career paths, short of guaranteed employment. Also, granting agencies will need to recognize the value of longer-serving laboratory members. If adopted, this change would help to bring the system closer to equilibrium. There is precedent for such a policy in the intramural NIH research program, which employs many well-trained MSc and PhD graduates as staff scientists to conduct research.

Having been a staff scientist, there are a few problems here. First, core and within-lab positions need some kind of backstopping. If after five years, the money for the position vanishes, then you’re screwed. This might work for science spouses, but I can’t see the R01 mechanism working, except for the funding elite. The other thing is that this is very geographically-dependent. If you’re in Boston (or a few other locations), when the funding dries up, there are other options locally. But if you’re at a small university–or a large one not near anything else–when the job disappears, you’re not just switching jobs, but where you live. With all the pissing and moaning about Boston and other elite coastal cities, I imagine this would be viewed as a problem. The NIH campus has options for staff scientists who need a new position, so I don’t know how broadly applicable, outside of San Francisco, Boston, and possibly Research Triangle, that model is unless NIH changes how it funds science.

Which brings us to this grant making suggestion:

Inertia and financial dependency favor continuing large research programs, so sunset provisions should be built into all new programs and orchestrated team efforts. To combat the tendency for fields to become parochial, agencies should develop funding mechanisms that encourage the growth of new fields, both by direct support for new science and by a rigorous regular evaluation of existing programs.

This sounds great, but, in practice, what often happens is just as a large research group is getting good at what it does, the funding is slashed or disappears and all of that expertise vanishes. Obviously, some programs have an obvious end–sequencing the human genome. But if you want stability for staff scientists, then long-term, large scale research programs are necessary (or marry wisely!).

Finally, the grant review proposals are just daffy. I would argue we need more junior people closer to the research as well as non-academic researchers (i.e., from institutes and companies when appropriate) as reviewers. Should only an older and elite subset of the eight percent of PhDs who get tenure be the only ones making funding decisions? I have doubts.

So what to make of this? The problem is defined superbly, but I think there’s a lot of bias towards elite academic institutions and the single PI model. Unfortunately, there are a lot of assumptions in the article about how science should be done, who gets to do it, and who decides who gets to do it, none of which are explicitly stated (other than senior people are wick-ED smaht!). If we want to solve the funding problems, we need to bluntly and honestly lay those assumptions bare.

*One key point is that overheads are now including the costs of building new facilities to house scientists; maybe not the best use of overhead dollars….

**The only pedagogical classroom training I received consisted of “when you erase the blackboard/whiteboard, do it from top to bottom, not side to side, because side to side makes your ass wiggle.” Not kidding.

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